Narendra Modi’s speech on August 15, India’s Independence Day, shows the government’s foreign policy to be rudderless. In fact, Modi’s speech was particularly remarkable for its relative lack of references to foreign policy. Indeed, more can be made out by what he left out rather than what he included.
Instead of naming Pakistan or China, Modi referred to terrorism and expansionism as the twin challenges his government has faced over the last year. Last summer, the Indian and Chinese armies clashed along their disputed border along the Himalayas. Despite a limited ceasefire, China still controls territory claimed by India. The picture is murkier yet as Modi’s government has been remarkably reticent about the specifics of the ceasefire. The prime minister even went so far as to tell parliament last year that China did not intrude into territory claimed by India.
It is likely that India is still hedging when it comes to China. Despite being part of the Quad, a group comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US, New Delhi has been unable to extract the benefits of being part of an overt front against China. This explains Modi’s reluctance to mention China by name, let alone celebrate the increased security ties with the US. Overall, it betrays strategic incoherence.
Ties with Pakistan remain in deep freeze, particularly after India removed Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019 and imposed direct federal control on the territory. India-Pakistan ties are likely to be complicated further with the Taliban coming to power this week in Afghanistan. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan gives Pakistan’s military the strategic depth against India that Islamabad has long craved. Moreover, this may lead to an uptick in terrorism in South Asia, specifically directed at Indian control of Kashmir. Yet other than harking back to when India is believed to have carried out “surgical strikes” on purported terrorist camps in Pakistan territory in 2019, Modi said very little about Pakistan – India’s most critical foreign-policy issue.
On Kashmir, Modi completely ignored the fact that the mood in the territory remains febrile. Modi did however mention the recently conducted local polls. But he failed to mention a dismally low voter turnout and that his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was roundly trounced.
However, it is significant that he mentioned a “delimitation commission,” a body tasked with redrawing electoral districts in the region. Kashmiris are wary of regulations introduced by Delhi that make it easier for non-local people to claim domicile rights and buy land in the region. They allege this is part of India’s plan to change the region’s demography, much like China has done with Xinjiang, where years of Han Chinese migration has reduced the Uyghurs to a minority in several cities.
Kashmiris suspect that a Delhi-appointed delimitation commission will privilege territory over people and skew the territory’s elected assembly toward heftier representation from the region’s Hindu-majority areas, thus reducing political representation for Muslims. That Modi chose to mention the delimitation commission explicitly in his speech suggests he is willing to tolerate the foreign-policy costs of continued volatility in Kashmir so long as he gets to use it as a totemic issue with which to consolidate support from his Hindu-nationalist base.
Even as things were heating up in Kabul the very day of his speech, Modi said nothing about Afghanistan, one of the biggest disasters for India’s foreign policy in recent times. Because successive governments have been unable to look beyond the Taliban’s ties to Pakistan, New Delhi today, unlike Tehran or Moscow, has zero leverage with the militant group. The Taliban’s control of Afghanistan seriously imperil India’s decades-long investments in Afghanistan’s social and political sector.
On Myanmar, too, Modi said little other than to mention the country as part of Delhi’s Act East policy, which aims to increase linkages with Southeast Asian countries. Yet, even on Myanmar, New Delhi has been unable to develop a coherent approach toward the military junta now ruling the country, watching helplessly as Myanmar further drifts toward China.
In his speech, Modi told Indians they were entering an “Amrit Kaal,” or a period of immortality (in Hindu mythology, Amrit refers to an immortality-conferring ambrosia while Kaal is the word for a cyclical period of time). This seems particularly cruel, given that up to 5 million Indians may have lost their lives due to Covid-19 over the last year, 10 times the Indian government’s official death toll. On the issue of foreign policy though, Modi spared Indians such tone-deafness. Yet saying little of value on the topic ended up saying a lot.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.